Let’s just say it like it is alleyways get a bad rep. San Francisco, however, has some of the prettiest alleyways (don’t @ me).

While you’re bound to find a few dark and looming alleys in a city this size, our wonderful bayside home has plenty of hidden treasures. Want to take a tour of San Francisco that brings you to the perfectly unique, eclectic, and insta-worthy alleys? Then read on, my friend.

Chinatown: San Francisco’s alleyway hot spot

If you want the most alleyway bang for your buck, head to Chinatown. There are alleyways every few blocks, and each can hold surprises.

Take Pratt Place for example. Just off of California Street you’ll find a cable car mural, which is fun in and of itself.

 

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Turn around, and you’ll see a pink facade of a building decked out with paintings of hanging lightbulbs. And that’s on top of the funky geometric pattern on the face of the building.

Photo: Google Maps

San Francisco alleyways aren’t just places for murals, though. Some of them are practically historic landmarks! Take Ross Alley, for example. This little corner of Chinatown, perfectly draped with red lanterns, has been around since 1849. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been a pleasant place. In the late 1800s, it was filled with gambling houses and brothels. Now it’s where you’ll find the entrance to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company.

 

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At nearby Spofford Street, you’ll find a colorful collection of buildings. This alley also holds an unsuspecting history. While the alley is quiet today, it was at once the backdrop of the Tong Wars. Rivalries between factions of a Chinese-immigrant organization turned violent in the 1920s.

Yes, romantic alleyways exist

South of Chinatown you’ll come upon Belden Place, sometimes referred to as SF’s French Quarter. Restaurants line the alley, including Cafe Bastille, which makes this alley useful if you’re hungry. The full beauty of the alley is best enjoyed at night when strings of lights criss-cross over tables and create a cozy and romantic vibe.

san francisco alleyways
Photo: B44 Catalan Bistro

Nearby is Maiden Lane, another pedestrian-only area with string lights overhead. While Belden Place is the French Quarter of San Francisco, Maiden Lane was once part of the city’s red light district. Before the 1906 earthquake the area was called Morton Street, but after the earthquake reduced all of the brothels to rubble it was renamed. These days you’ll find boutiques and art galleries.

san francisco alleyways
Photo: Union Square Foundation

Not all San Francisco alleyways are bustling streets, though. Macondray Lane off of Russian Hill offers a moment of nature in the big city. You can wander through the green space, which was likely the inspiration for Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. On the Taylor Street end of the alley, you’ll find a set of steps that offer a view of the bay and Alcatraz as you descend to the main street.

 

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Literary and art history meet in San Francisco alleyways

To explore a pretty San Francisco alley with a bit of literary history, head to Jack Kerouac Alley. The space, originally called Adler Place, was renamed after the beat poet who hung out at the nearby City Lights Bookstore. In the alley, you’ll find murals as well as engraved markers on the ground featuring quotes from writers such as Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

san francisco alleyways
Photo: Art for the Blog of It

If you love alleys with a little artistic flair, there’s no better place than Balmy Alley. This alleyway in the Inner Mission district has the highest concentration of murals in the entire city. Most buildings along the alley have their own mural, and it’s been that way since the 1970s. The first murals were painted by a Chicana duo who came to be known as Las Mujeres Muralistas.

Photo: Flickr

The mural above is titled “Tributo a Mujeres Muralistas and Future Generations” and was painted in 1995 by Precitas Eyes Muralists. The influence of Balmy Alley has spread to other areas as well. Clarion Alley and its mural project pay homage to Balmy Alley in the declaration below.

Photo: Clarion Alley Mural Project

Shannon Street is yet another area with murals, this time taking a political and social stance. The murals here tackle issues such as veteran suicide, violence, and war.

Photo: TripAdvisor

This list of top San Francisco alleys covered a lot of ground from secret nooks of nature to walls overflowing with murals. The best part, though, is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The city and all of its neighborhoods have hundreds of hidden alleys waiting to be discovered.

Want to see and explore more of San Francisco? Check out our walking tours of SoMa and Haight-Ashbury, or choose a great bike ride route.